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Archive for March 2006

have some cheese

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John Tierney today in the NY Times:

The French produce great Camembert, but they haven’t absorbed the wisdom of Spencer Johnson’s modern classic, “Who Moved My Cheese?: An A-Mazing Way to Deal with Change in Your Work and in Your Life.” They haven’t heeded Donald Trump’s instructional CD, “Think Like a Billionaire.” They haven’t mastered Stephen Covey’s “Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” or Anthony Robbins’s “Awaken the Giant Within.”

We’ll just leave it at that. Except to say that this blog hopes that the white collar GM workers – who were asked to be sure to drive the company car to work today, just in case – are well-versed in Amazing Ways to Deal with Change in their Work and their Lives.


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March 29, 2006 at 12:26 am

ballard: the aesthetic, boredom, and neo-fascism

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J.G. Ballard. from a slightly dated (June 2004) interview in the Guardian (again, via BLDGBLOG):

Today’s art scene? Very difficult to judge, since celebrity and the media presence of the artists are inextricably linked with their work. The great artists of the past century tended to become famous in the later stages of their careers, whereas today fame is built into the artists’ work from the start, as in the cases of Emin and Hirst.

There’s a logic today that places a greater value on celebrity the less it is accompanied by actual achievement. I don’t think it’s possible to touch people’s imagination today by aesthetic means. Emin’s bed, Hirst’s sheep, the Chapmans’ defaced Goyas are psychological provocations, mental tests where the aesthetic elements are no more than a framing device.

It’s interesting that this should be the case. I assume it is because our environment today, by and large a media landscape, is oversaturated by aestheticising elements (TV ads, packaging, design and presentation, styling and so on) but impoverished and numbed as far as its psychological depth is concerned.

Artists (though sadly not writers) tend to move to where the battle is joined most fiercely. Everything in today’s world is stylised and packaged, and Emin and Hirst are trying to say, this is a bed, this is death, this is a body. They are trying to redefine the basic elements of reality, to recapture them from the ad men who have hijacked our world.

This opposition between “psychological depth” and the “aesthetic” is truly intriguing. It’s certainly not the way that I usually think of it – that we suffer from deprivation of psychological depth and an overabundance of the aesthetic. And if what I’ve argued recently about Proust – and really I mean eventually to say about most literary modernism in general – could it be that there’s been a reversal in the poles on this front over the past century?

Can art be a vehicle for political change? Yes, I assume that a large part of Blair’s appeal (like Kennedy’s) is aesthetic, just as a large part of the Nazi appeal lay in its triumph of the will aesthetic. I suspect that many of the great cultural shifts that prepare the way for political change are largely aesthetic. A Buick radiator grille is as much a political statement as a Rolls Royce radiator grille, one enshrining a machine aesthetic driven by a populist optimism, the other enshrining a hierarchical and exclusive social order. The ocean liner art deco of the 1930s, used to sell everything from beach holidays to vacuum cleaners, may have helped the 1945 British electorate to vote out the Tories.

Interesting, again, to think of Blair’s appeal as “aesthetic.” We’re familiar with fascism as the “aestheticization of politics,” per Benjamin and others, but neoliberal third way-ism? I sense that Ballard’s right about this too, but how would we describe the “aesthetic” that Blair personifies or plays upon? And this bit about art deco and the advent of the welfare state is wild:

I assume by “ocean liner art deco” he means the advertising posters, available for sale now at the “art store” in every mid-rent mall. What is it about these images, so aggressively futurial and devoid of human mess, that would point the way, in Ballard’s mind anyway, toward the nationalization of utilities and long-distance transportation?

My real fear is that boredom and inertia may lead people to follow a deranged leader with far fewer moral scruples than Richard Gould, that we will put on jackboots and black uniforms and the aspect of the killer simply to relieve the boredom. A vicious and genuinely mindless neo-fascism, a skilfully aestheticised racism, might be the first consequence of globalisation, when Classic Coke® and California merlot are the only drinks on the menu. At times I look around the executive housing estates of the Thames Valley and feel that it is already here, quietly waiting its day, and largely unknown to itself.

So… The distinction between the art deco liner, an announcement via capitalism’s marketing jabber of the possible subsumption of capitalism itself, and the jackboot and shiny leather belt, would seem to be essential. Between the commonplace object, like something out a children’s book, monumentalized and the banalization of the exotically vicious, the hideous adornment of the self in the sartorial correlative of the self’s worst impulses.

In short, an elective psychopathy will come to our aid (as it has done many times in the past) – Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, all those willed nightmares that make up much of human history. As Wilder Penrose points out in Super-Cannes, the future will be a huge Darwinian struggle between competing psychopathies. Along with our passivity, we’re entering a profoundly masochistic phase – everyone is a victim these days, of parents, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, even love itself. And how much we enjoy it. Our happiest moments are spent trying to think up new varieties of victimhood…

Starts to seem as though our task, if we have one, is to combat boredom, but in an (exacty, impossibly) right way….

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March 28, 2006 at 11:17 pm


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But it is real, not computer generated. It is “low-income housing in Ixtapaluca, Mexico City.” (Again, via BLDGBLOG).

Can we learn to love the same? We have never tried. Our aesthetic, far outrun by our politics, was and has remained that of the autonomous individual, forever damned to assert her or his autonomous individuality, her idiosyncrasy, his exhausted maintenance of difference.

But perhaps in a world of true efficiency, an efficiency aimed at equality rather than one in service of exploitation, we will need to learn to love the same.

The study of art, all forms of art, has lost track of the aesthetic, the question of it, the putting of it up for question. It is not that a sense of form has deserted us, but rather that we have abandoned the hard questions of purpose and priority. We have bracketed off the aesthetic as compromised, rather than compromised ourselves in the development of a new one.

Moving forward, we will have to confront the same questions that Roland Barthes did during his 1974 Tel Quel fieldtrip to China, a China in the throes of the cultural revolution, when he found that having left behind the West, its

turbulence of symbols, we address very vast, very old, and very new land, where signification is discrete to the point of rarity. Right at this moment, a new field is discovered: that of fragility, or still better (I risk the word, quitting it to come back to it later): of blandness (fadeur)

He found in China “a people (who, in twenty-five years, has already constructed a considerable nation) which circulates, works, drinks its tea or performs solitary gymnastics, without drama, without noise, without pose, in short without hysteria.”

Barthes had his answer to this hysteria-less silence, an answer in a certain sense determinative or at least highly reflective of the sweep of critical thought over the the next thirty years. Perhaps it is time to rethink this answer.

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March 26, 2006 at 1:32 am

a lou dobbs election

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From James Wolcott today:

More and more, I’m sensing that the 2006 midterms, for better or worse, will be a Lou Dobbs election. (No single forum was more instrumental for aborting the Dubai ports deal than his.) The midterms will be fought not over cultural-war values like gay marriage or abortion, but over the sorts of economic and sovereignty issues Dobbs hammers on about every weeknight on CNN: the squeeze on the middle class; Washington’s runaway budgets and the explosion in deficit; the gutting of pensions; the hollowing-out of America’s industrial base; the war over immigration; globalization and free trade. I don’t think all of this is bad: Dobbs’ program is one of the few on cable that addresses the plight of workers (as opposed to maximizing investment gains and extending corporate power–the mandate of Larry Kudlow’s CNBC show), the negative impact of globalization, and the frustration over the influx of illegal immigrants. (You don’t have to agree with Dobbs’ tone or solutions to recognize the frustration in the Western states particularly has been bubbling hot, and has been too long ignored by the media-political elite.) But Dobbs also runs a regular segment on China called “Red Storm” that’s like a blast from the Cold War past, and intended to raise alarm. It’s like something out of the National Review circa 1958. One of the great paradoxes of our age is how the US can be so dimly complacent and so sharply fearful in the same breath. We’re in a constant state of sluggish agitation, worked up into a righteous state of indifference.

I happen to think Wolcott couldn’t be more right about the coming “Lou Dobbs election.” I’ve been saying this for months now, maybe even a year. (Well, to my wife anyway, as we eat our takeout and change the channel on old Lou…) And Wolcott’s absolutely right, Dobbs focuses on economic issues while the rest of the media fiddles away at supposedly hot-button irrelevancies (best case) or celebrity updates and health tips (more usually). He seems to have acquired a huge following and not a little political clout. The Dubai ports issue seemed to be largely his doing, illegal immigration is bubbling up again, and there’s are hints that ordinary folks are starting to look at the cheap DVD players a bit askance as they spend their unemployment checks on cheap and crappy food at Walmart.

If you live outside of the big cities, read the letters to the editor in your paper. Count the days when you don’t find references to Dobbs’s pet issues.

Anytime the zeitgeist blows back toward economics, and popular economics, that has to be a good thing, right? It’s easy to get a sick sort of leninist chill up your spine, sensing that things are finally becoming hard enough for enough of the voting middle class for things, perhaps, just possibly, to change.

But what terrifies me – and I’m sure terrifies Wolcott, though he perhaps doesn’t make it clear enough here – is that the single connective strand that runs through nearly all of Dobbs central issues is not just populist economics but rather national or racial explanations for economic problems. The issue is never simply Walmart, but Walmart and “Communist China.” (He pointedly always refers to the PRC in this way). The Dubai ports deal (which, come on, the proper question was always why are our ports being “sold” in the first place, not what nation is buying them, something, of course, that the Democrats couldn’t understand, as Schumer manned the barricades flying the flag of “turbans need not apply.”) And, last but not least, the crown jewel in the Dobbs’s ideological crown: our porous Southern border. This one explains itself. If you think low-wages and unemployment are caused by mexican landscapers… Seriously, back to school with you.

Dobbs couldn’t get audience if he provided rational answers to economic questions. Rather, he asks some of the right questions, and provides answers are both easy to understand and which play upon the worst impulses of an audience both bruised and confused. It is a rare and amazing thing when Americans start to pay attention to their actual problems, rather than concerns that waver between the mystical, absurd, and grotesque. But it is less amazing when we figure out that what they’re hearing here, on Dobbs show, is that the answers are those that there fathers and grandfathers and greatgrandfathers had told them, always already. That it’s the blacks or the Chinese or the hispanics, terroristic petroarabs or call center Indians that have caused the problem… That if only “our” politicians could “get tough” with these groups, could look out for “our” interests for once, we could right the ship of state, make auto parts again, take Emmylou to the high school dance.

I have a feeling strange things are going to happen in November 2006. I have a feeling those things will make it terribly clear that a third party could gain 33% percent of the vote in 2008. Up with socialism, of course. But remember what horrid acronyms and shorthands are birthed of the mating of Nationalism and Socialism in times of crisis.

(But even as the cloud gather, there are signs of hope as well.)

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March 24, 2006 at 11:05 pm

everyone can find in it his own existence

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From Walter Benjamin’s “The Image of Proust” in Illuminations:

What was it that Proust sought so frenetically? What was at the bottom of these infinite efforts? Can we say that all lives, works, and deeds that matter were never anything but the undisturbed unfolding of the most banal, most fleeting, most sentimental, weakest hour in the life of the one to whom they pertain? When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

There are lots of different ways to describe Benjamin’s distinctive form of writing, his idiosyncratic form of thought. Some prefer the term “thetic,” which obviously works best with the pieces actually broken into theses, like the “Theses on the Philosophy” of history or the “Work of Art” essay. Others go with “dialectical,” which works as well, but perhaps distracts a bit from the actual contours of the texts.

This passage from the essay on Proust is a perfect example of what I would call Benjamin’s late and distinctive form. And it bears an amazing message, if you listen closely.

The third sentence takes up the blurring of the event, the significant occurrence, into the banal, the long durée, the everyday. For a gloss we can turn back just a bit for this:

Only the actus purus of recollection itself, not the author or the plot, constitutes the unity of the text. One may even say that the intermittence of the author and plot is only the reverse of the continuum of memory, the pattern on the backside of the tapestry.

In Proust’s work, then, we find a reversal of – or the surfacing of the reversal of – the conventional way that he conceive of novels. Rather than organizing the inchoate, the author and plot only interrupt, disrupt, punctuate the underlying continuum of infinite recollection. This reversal levels the finite event down into the infinite “unfolding” of time.

Well enough. But then back to the next sentence of the initial quote, which sends us in a very different direction:

When Proust in a well-known passage described the hour that was most his own, he did it in such a way that everyone can find it in his own existence. We might even call it an everyday hour.

Do you see it? The leap? From the dissolution of significance into the everyday, without a breath, into this – into the generalization of the particular, into communicability. We start with nihilism, neglect the anxious consideration of the abyss that we might expect, and turn in the next sentence to communication.

Reminds me, just this tiny passage, quite a bit of the move that’s being traced out here – the work that gives this blog its name.

The commodification of the human body, while subjecting it to the iron laws of massification and exchange value, seemed at the same time to redeem the body from the stigma of ineffability that had marked it for millennia. Breaking away from the double chains of biological destiny and individual biography, it took its leave of both the inarticulate cry of the tragic body and the dumb silence of the comic body, and thus appeared for the first time perfectly communicable, entirely illuminated. The epochal process of the emancipation of the human body from its theological foundations was thus accomplished in the dances of the ‘girls,’ in the advertising images, and in the gait of fashion models. This process had already been imposed at an industrial level when, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the invention of lithography and photography encouraged the inexpensive distribution of pornographic images: Neither generic nor individual, neither an image of the divinity nor an animal form, the body now become something truly whatever.

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March 22, 2006 at 1:22 am

returning the gift of modernity

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From well into the “Swann in Love” section of Swann’s Way, translated by Lydia Davis:

Then he could not think without a feeling of great weariness that the next day he would again have to begin trying to find out what Odette had been doing, use all his influence to attempt to see her. This compulsion to an activity without respite, without variety, without results was so cruel to him that one day, seeing a lump on his abdomen, he felt real joy at the thought that he might have a fatal tumor, that he was no longer going to have to take charge of anything, that it was the disease that would manage him, make him its plaything, until the impending end. And indeed if, during this period, he often desired death though without admitting it to himself, it was to escape not so much the acuteness of his sufferings as the monotony of his struggle.

The novel, that avatar of class triumph and the corresponding triumph of consciousness, is incessantly marking out its own nostalgia for unconsciousness, for the end of the script. Proust is no exception. We follow Swann along the line of his addictive, neurotic relationship with Odette, and as we do, we grow frustrated. There’s always another “but,” another thought on the matter. Swann is trapped, and we are trapped along with him. It really is too much, he really should stop, grow up a bit, get back to reality. But he cannot, and neither can we as long as we hold the book in our hands.

We begin to think, along with Swann himself, that there must be a better way to spend one’s time that the obsessive pursuit of Odette, whether through Swann’s France or Proust’s novel. Swann thinks, at one point, how much better it would be to be simple;

In these almost working-class neighborhoods, what a modest life, abject, but sweet, nourished with calm and happiness, he would have agreed to live indefinitely.

It increasingly seems to me that literary modernism – characterized by such forms as so-called “stream of consciousness” – almost always contains a plea, entre les lignes, to be allowed to return this gift of modernity, this symptom that makes us what we are, consciousness itself.

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March 21, 2006 at 1:52 am


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Following up on my last post about the Sopranos, in tonight’s episode, Tony’s deathbed hallucination has him living some sort of alternative life, sanitized, without the violence of his “real” personality (he’s beaten up by a Buddhist monk, takes shit from hoteliers, etc…), and, from what we can tell from his calls home, with a happier family waiting for him back in Jersey.

So he’s gone straight…

But, we note, in the sanitized version of Tony’s life, he is an arms dealer by profession – selling optics systems to the US military, apparently.


There is no outside, Chase seems to be telling us. Even our fantasies of “clean” existence partake, as if inevitably, necessarily, of the filthy logic of expropriation, exploitation, and cinematic violence.

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March 20, 2006 at 2:15 am

Posted in america, teevee